Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan launched a commission Thursday to tackle drug trafficking in West Africa as the region increasingly becomes a stopover point for cocaine and marijuana shipments from the Americas to Europe.
"The massive surge in drug trafficking over the last decade presents a serious and growing threat to the region's stability and development," said Annan. "Left unchecked, illegal drug trafficking could compromise the encouraging progress that West African nations have made in strengthening democracy and promoting human and economic development."
The 10-member commission, headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, will raise awareness, promote regional capacity to deal with the problem, and develop policy recommendations for political leaders, he said. The Commission on the Impact of Drug Trafficking on Governance, Security and Development in West Africa is sponsored by the Kofi Annan Foundation
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in a report last year that cocaine trafficking in West and Central Africa generates some $900 million annually for criminal networks.
In July, the Executive Director of the UNODC, Yury Fedotov, said some 30 tons of cocaine were trafficked to West Africa in 2011. He also reported an increase in heroin trafficking, as evidenced by an upsurge in seizures from 20 kilograms seized in 2008 to almost 400 kilograms in 2011. Methamphetamine laboratories have also recently been discovered in West Africa, he said.
The tiny coup-prone nation of Guinea-Bissau served as the entry point for drug smuggling in West Africa about a decade ago, Annan said, and is now frequently dubbed a "narcostate."
In Guinea-Bissau key members of the military have been named as complicit in the trade, including several army and navy chiefs who are now on the United States' "drug kingpin" list. The infusion of illicit cash has emboldened an already bloated army, and fueled several coups.
But the trade has in recent years moved along the continent's western coast and through its porous borders in the Sahel, Annan said.
Annan blamed the international community for ignoring the threat posed by corrupted states like Guinea-Bissau.
"As an international community we tend to be rather short-sighted. We have to be careful how we deal with failed states," Annan said. "We ignored Somalia for 20 years until it came back to bite us in the form of central piracy, and everybody then woke up. And by then it had done lots of damage to the whole region and to global commerce. In a way we are doing the same with Guinea-Bissau. That's where it started, and we have allowed it to fester," he said.
Annan said drug traffickers have linked with terrorist groups in the region, who are threatening regional stability as they threaten to take the reins of power in Mali and other parts of the Sahel.
And another concern for regional leaders: West Africans are also starting to use the drugs. "We have ceased to be just transit zone. We have become manufacturing zone and consuming zone," Obasanjo said. "We don't want it to reach an epidemic trend. We want to stop it and reverse it."
Yet Annan acknowledged his commission is "not a police force," and cannot hold smugglers, criminal gangs, terrorists, or corrupt officials accountable.
"All governments and people in this region have to be aware and do whatever they can to contain it," he said. "But we also rely on our partners in Europe, in Latin America and the U.S. to work with us in dealing with this menace."